August 21 – Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20

Matthew 16:13-20

In our Gospel story for today, it sort of feels like Jesus confronts his disciples with the final test.  With the big question, “Who do you say that I am?”  And it seems to have the emphasis on the you.  Who do you say that I am?  The word can almost jump off the page like a big finger pointing straight at you.  When I was at the fair this week, I walked past a stand that was handing out gospel tracks and their sign read, “Do you know what you have done to Jesus?”  The implied message being – you killed him.  It is a scary thing to read.  It is a big pointed finger passing blame around – to make one feel bad enough that they will accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior so that they don’t feel so bad anymore.

I fear that this text can have that same effect.  Who do you say that I am?  It is kind of a scary question.  Have you ever been confronted by someone to talk about your faith?  Have you ever been asked to defend your faith?  It can be a scary thing.  I don’t know about you, but I start to clam up and hem and haw just trying to buy myself sometime until the perfect, authentic and original words come to mind.  Words that will settle my own heart and convince this person, or at least get them to go away.  But then the words never seem to come and I just settle on some answer that I have heard from someone else.  “Jesus is everything to me.”  “Jesus is the one who guides my life.”  “Jesus is the son of God.”  Words that I am not even sure I always believe or know what they mean.  What does it mean to say that Jesus is the son of God, but then also to say that Jesus is God?  To someone who has never heard of Jesus or been raised in the church, this doesn’t make any sense, and to be honest some days it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me either.  So after those encounters, I usually I can’t help but walk away feeling defeated and that the person challenging me got exactly what they were looking for – to poke holes in my faith.

When Jesus first confronts the disciples by asking them, “Who do people say that I am?”, the disciples respond, “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another prophet!”  But this doesn’t seem to be what Jesus was looking for.  He seems to be disappointed in this response.  As if the response was nothing new or original or authentic, but was perhaps something that was clichéd or overused.  There was no blood, or feeling, or life in those previous answers.  And so Jesus rephrases his question, “No, no….who do you say that I am?”

Every week, a bunch of pastors get together and talk about the upcoming Sunday’s text.  This past week, one pastor confronted each of us, just like Jesus, and he said, “Okay, so who do you say that Jesus is?  And no using titles or religious language.”  And it was….hard.  We were basically silent.  We stumbled over words and phrases, none of which seemed satisfying, and eventually settled into silence.  It is hard, even for a room full of pastors, to speak about who Jesus is for you without using other people’s term or language.

So when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” I can only imagine that same silence settling over the group.  Perhaps they look around at each other wondering who will speak up.  Perhaps, like most of us when the teacher asks a question to the class, they look at the floor, trying to not make eye contact, afraid that they might be called out personally.  Eventually, out of the silence, Peter steps forward and calls him Messiah, which is apparently the right answer.  An answer in fact, that you and I as readers of Matthew’s gospel already knew.  The very first sentence reads, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah.”  But what does it mean to call Jesus the Messiah?  Even though Jesus seems satisfied with Peter’s response, Peter doesn’t exactly know either what it means to call Jesus the Messiah.

As Messiah, Jesus is going to save the world, but it is going to be backwards.  It’s not how anyone expects.

Jesus is not the Messiah that Peter is expecting him to be.  When Peter makes this confession, Jesus hasn’t done anything that looks like the Messiah.  The messiah was not expected to be a healer or a person of wisdom.  The Messiah was one who was going to come like a warrior with a sword, taking the down the oppressive powers.  He was going to be one who purifies, burning away the bad and the rotten parts of the world.

But instead, Jesus comes as a poor peasant, not a warrior.  And instead of being the one who purifies and throws out that which is bad and unclean, he sits with the unclean and has a meal with the sinners and the tax collects.  He draws near to them; he doesn’t throw them out.  And he certainly doesn’t topple and destroy the oppressive powers of the day.  Instead, he is the one who is destroyed.  Killed on a cross by the Roman regime.

Perhaps Jesus knows that he is not the Messiah that Peter is expecting.  In fact, in the next couple of verses Jesus is going to call Peter “satan.”  Jesus tells his disciple that he has to go to die in Jerusalem and Peter tries to tell Jesus that this can’t happen.  Because remember Peter thinks Jesus is going to be the warrior Messiah, the one who comes to defeat, not to be defeated.

Jesus is going to save the world, but it is going to be backwards.  Even though Jesus won’t be the Messiah that Peter is expecting, even though Peter gets it right but still sort of gets it wrong, Jesus still says to Peter, the one who will try to prevent him from being the kind of Messiah he must be, Peter the one who will deny that he ever knew Jesus three times before Jesus is crucified, to that Peter he says, “Blessed are you, Simon.  You are Peter and on this rock, I will build my church.”

Now here is your Greek lesson for the day.  When Jesus says this, there is a play on words that is happening here.  The Greek word for Peter is petros and it means stone, or pebble, a smaller piece of a larger rock.  The Greek word for rock is petra, which means a boulder, or a great big rock.  So Jesus says to Peter, “I am going to build my church on you, but you will be just one piece of a much larger foundation for my church.”[1]

And so it is for us.  Jesus is going to save the world but it is going to be backwards.  Jesus is going to build his church on people like you and I.  People who stumble to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?”  People who clam up and go silent when confronted with questions about our faith.

And the beautiful part of being a small part of a larger foundation is that what you do matters to God.  But also the future of God’s church also doesn’t rest completely on your shoulders, either.  We go through this together, helping each other out along the way.

I once heard the story about a man whose wife died the day before Easter.  As he sat through the worship service on Sunday morning, trumpets and brass were playing, banners were waving, and people were proclaiming, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”  How can I believe any of this, he thought.  How can I believe that God has defeated death when my wife has just encountered death?  But it was about halfway through the service when he realized that he didn’t have to believe in or celebrate Easter today.  In the presence of grief and in the absence of believe, he had a whole community of people standing around him who would be believe on his behalf.

God will build God’s church on you.  But the whole weight of the church does not rest on your shoulders.  We do this together.

At the beginning of the worship service, all of you were given a small stone.  If you are anything like me, you’ll likely throw it away before you leave church today.  Or perhaps you’ll carry it in your pocket.  Or maybe set it on your dresser.  Whatever you do with it, it has served its purpose if it reminds you, even for just this moment, that you are Peter, the stone.  And together we make up a larger rock upon which God will build God’s church and bring about hope for the world.  AMEN


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 73.

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